It's been a long standing problem. How does someone who is Torah observant address someone who is a rabbi but is also not shomer mitzvos k'hilchaso? On one hand, it seems wrong to call them "rabbi" since they openly reject many basic tenets of Judaism. On the other hand, they went to an accredited educational institution and completed a degree program that grants them the title. A naturopath would be offended if told "Well, I'm not going to call you a doctor because you're not one" and rightly so since he earned the title in his program. A Reformer or Conservative would have an equal right to be offended.
So what to do? The best response I've heard was told to me by an old friend who simply suggesting calling the non-observant ones "Rabbi" and the observant ones "Rav". That way a subtle differentiation is made and no one has to be insulted.
However, a recent article I read seems to have brought this distinction into the Orthodox community.
When Rav Avi Weiss decided to ordain a modern Orthodox female rabbi, he assuaged critics' fears (those critics he cares about assuaging anyway) by creating a new title for her: Maharat. This way he could have the best of both worlds. He would be achieving the wet dream of gender equality within the left wing Modern Orthodox world but would avoid alienating the rest of the community by provocatively calling his new creation a rabbi.
Unfortunately the first Maharat, Ms. Sara Hurwitz, seems to have missed this fine distinction. It seems clear from the article referenced that she considers herself to be a rabbi in form and function:
I recently got a taste of what it would be like to have my own pulpit, to be the rabbi of my own shul. My esteemed colleagues Rabbis Avi Weiss and Steven Exler were on vacation, which left me in charge. Alone. In a 850-family shul. Of course, as soon as everyone left, there was suddenly a funeral to officiate, a shiva to run, a bris to lead, and Shabbat services to orchestrate. I did it all, and the craziest thing is that no one batted an eyelid. It just seemed natural. From this whirlwind experience I gained an even fuller appreciation of the deep and far-reaching modes of activity that constitute the rabbinate. And if I could distill the one common ingredient in these tasks it would be presence. Showing up. Reaching out and making personal connections with individuals. This point was driven home to me in two distinct ways. When an adult son of one of our members died, they called the shul asking to speak to one of the rabbis. So I dropped everything and went to sit with them, navigating the family through the complicated hospital bureaucracy and funeral arrangements. Towards the end of the day, as I broached the topic of who would be officiating at the funeral, explaining that I could find a male, more traditional looking rabbi, she looked at me as if I was crazy. Of course you should do it, she said. By the end of the week, she was telling anyone who would listen (between her moments of grief) that I was a rabbi.And on the other end of the life cycle, I was asked to advise on and coordinate a bris. I showed up at the couples’ home, explained the bris ceremony, and envisioned with them how the service would be run. By the end of the conversation, it was hard to imagine the day without my participation. You see, until recently, I assumed that lifecycle events were closed off to me as a woman in a rabbinic position. People associate these events with male rabbis. But as I officiate at more and more of these ceremonies—in sadness and gladness—I realize that gender is less important to members of my community than simply being present, engaged and building a relationship.That is what being a rabbis is about. That is the rabbinate 101.
However, what struck me most about this article is what Maharet Hurwitz thinks a rabbi is. Within the Chareidi and Dati Leumi world, the function of the Rav is that of teacher and decisor in halacha. One goes to a Rav to learn God's Torah and His laws for us. The image of the rabbi as a counsellor and pastor-type figure was borrowed by the Conservatives and Reformers from Chrisianity in order to give their rabbis something to do with their time. After all, what does a Presbyterian reverend do other than conduct Sunday services and counsel his flock?
Yet this is clearly the model that Maharet Hurwitz is referring to with her "this is the rabbinate 101". No, it's not. Despite her possible opinion to the contrary, not one thing in her article actually needed someone like her, or even a male rabbi. Any well-meaning person slightly versed in the rules of the given event could have done what she did. You don't need a rabbi in most situations that people think you do. It's just because the local non-Jews use their priest/reverend in official capacities that many Jews who think that Judaism is a religion just like theirs believe you do. Heck, for years the Conservative synagogue in my home town was too cheap to hire a rabbi so they made do with a dentist who thinks that knowing the names of the some of the books of the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch and being able to lead services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur makes one qualified to be a spiritual leader. And truth be told, the congregation was very happy with him.
Thus it seems clear to me that Maharet Hurwitz is inadvertantly bringing up an important distinction between real Orthodox and the so-called centrist option (again, if they're centrist, who is to the left of them?). Maybe it's time to distinguish between Rav Hershel Schechter and Rabbi Avi Weiss.